Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The White Company

April 30, 2014


For our May selection, I am reaching back to a book I reveled in as a boy, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The White Company (originally published in 1890). Before selecting it as our 29th Book of the Month, somewhat apprehensively, I re-read it to see if it still had the magic and romance it had for me as an adolescent and teenager. Not to worry–it was just as gripping now as it had been back then.

Why was I apprehensive? Because of the recent Sherlock Holmes movies that portray him and his constant sidekick Dr. Watson as violent, sex-addicted, spiritualistic, and into drugs. And that was not how I remembered him in The White Company. Nor was it, generally speaking, in the original Sherlock Holmes stories. True, the spiritualistic and drug elements are in the Sherlock Holmes stories, but they were understated. Indeed, The White Company doesn’t even contain foreshadowing that Doyle would desert the audience that made him wealthy in the first place.

But it is comforting to be reassured that The White Company is all I remembered it to be when I was young. The ultimate books to me are the ones you re-read, each time with enjoyment almost as great as the time you first read them. Here is my February 28, 2014 reaction: What a story! What a prodigious work of research and scholarship it took to bring back the wild, bloody, yet glorious Fourteenth Century, the heyday of the archers and the beginning of the long decline of armored knights. Doyle brings all of them to vibrant life. You feel you are in that century, on the eve of England’s losing France. Young people have always loved the book. More mainstream than later spiritualistic druggy Doyle. A tremendous read!


Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was born into a prominent Irish Catholic family (son of the artist Charles Doyle). Doyle was educated in Stoneyhurst, in Germany, then returned to earn his medical degree at Edinburgh University. He then practiced as a physician from 1882 – 1890. But after trying his hand at writing historical fiction, he concluded that writing was more remunerative than medicine. Three of his most popular novels turned out to be Micah Clarke (1889), The White Company (1890), and Sir Nigel (1906).

When Britain was drawn into the fiercely fought and bloody Boer War (1899-1902), Doyle volunteered as a senior field physician. In 1902, he was knighted for his wartime contributions. It was while he was in Africa that Doyle wrote his semi-utopia, The Lost World (1912), for which he created a new character, Professor Challenger, who also starred in the sequel, The Poison Belt (2013). Doyle also created a Napoleonic Wars hero, Brigadier Girard.

But it was the creation of the subtle hawk-eyed amateur detective Sherlock Holmes that catapulted Doyle to world-wide fame. His stolid roommate, both friend and foil, Dr. Watson cemented them as a team. The Strand (one of the era’s finest magazines) carried almost all of their crime-solving adventures.

James D. Hart, author of The Popular Book (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1963), a reprint of the original book by Oxford University Press in 1950), had this to say about the pair’s international success:Scan_Pic0092

“Doyle arrived in America for a lecture tour in 1894, “four years after A Study in Scarlet, the first of his detective stories, appeared in this country. His popularity grew through three editions of this book, The Sign of the Four, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle had begun as a conventional historical romancer, but later he applied the techniques of the romance to a new type of fiction. The American public came to know him only as the creator of two characters permanently enshrined in this nation’s literary mythology–Sherlock Holmes the master detective and his friend Watson, who could grasp only the most elementary clue… He created simple, clear characters whose personalities remained constant but whose thrilling adventures were ever changing–ingredients typical of the romance, which emphasizes the excitements of plot involving characters clearly representative of good and evil”, (p. 198).

It shouldn’t be difficult for you to pick up an unabridged copy of The White Company, but I urge you to secure, if at all possible, the Cosmopolitan Book Corporation’s 1922 edition, with its magnificent N. C. Wyeth color illustrations. Prepare for a timeless great read, one that all generations will revel in.